GOA YEARS: MUSIC, FILMS AND A BIRTH
Part 1 2007-9
Arriving from New Zealand in August 2007, a resident of India for the first time, and dreaming large. Over the previous couple of years I have discovered the fun of being behind a camera in wild India. Completion of my Concert for India’s Environment film and a short documentary on the Himalayan NGO Avani have encouraged me to start seeing myself as a wildlife and documentary filmmaker.
Two CDs, Yoga Lounge (made with sitar maestro Niladi Kumar) and Buddha Moon (with Bikram Singh and Amano Manish) have been released and I have every reason to believe they will be a success and lead to more prestigious collaborations. And I’m in the perfect place to take advantage of live music opportunities both in Goa’s high season and just nine hours drive away at my old base at the Osho Commune in Pune.
By the spring of the first year, a trip to a glacier in the Himalayas and a friendship made there in the remote village of Jhuni, allows me to add anthropological explorer to my self-image. My ‘Smiles From Off the Road in India’ films made there and in tribal communities in Kerala over the year were unique on the YouTube of the day. By the third year I am playing the great white savior and raising money to bring solar lighting to Jhuni. (One fundraising concert for this in Pune on the night of the bombing of the German Bakery saved several lives of audience members who would otherwise have been at the scene 2010 Jhuni Benefit Concert and the German Bakery Bombing, Pune). And later that same year, with sufi/classical singer Sandeep Srivastava, I find myself spreading the environmental message through prestigious multimedia concerts in New Delhi with our Green Ragas Band.
In reality the window through which the opportunities to live these dreams was a narrow one and had closed by the end of my Goa years. My cheap video camera wasn’t really up to it once HD became the default for YouTube users; the delighted smiles from people who had never even seen a still photo of themselves, let alone a video, started to fade once mobile phones reached their remote areas; Jhuni’s remoteness meant that my solar initiative was basically unmanageable for Avani to oversee and was anyway eventually rendered superfluous by improvements to the governments hydroelectricity supply; the British Council, who funded Green Ragas, found itself squeezed by the new austerity-led Conservative government in UK and the 2010 Commonwealth Games concerts were our last.
And despite access to wonderful musicians, two of the three CDs I made during the period (Gaia’s Garden and Mystic Poets of India) were commercial flops. For Naveena too there was an unexpected bitterness to the end of her Indian career, with the Birthing Center closing down amid acrimony. By the end, when we left India in October 2013 under pressure of the Indian government’s new long-term visa restrictions and despite having lived in the most beautiful place of my life, the one lasting thing that was achieved (aside from the friendships with Sandeep and Khim) hadn’t even figured in my arriving dreams – the birth of our daughter Koyal.
But all that was in the future when we flew out of New Zealand and arrived into the monsoon-drenched village of Assagao, near Mapusa, the main town of North Goa. I was on a slightly shady two-year Business visa and Naveena on a squeaky clean one-year Employment visa. Following various police formalities we were officially residents, which for me as a visitor to India since thirty years, felt like a milestone.
Naveena’s new employers at the Birthing Center had found us a cottage to rent in the village hidden down a dirt track under cashew and coconut trees. Fifteen minutes away by scooter was Vagator beach, deserted in those monsoon days before Goa became a 365 tourism kind of place. Our owner, Violet lived with a three-year old son and a collection of rescued dogs and cats in a shack behind the recently built house that was to be our home. Ours was in traditional style, high ceilings to a tiled roof that let in the air, the dust and the insects (and even on one occasion a family of baby squirrels). For the next six years we would live with half a hundred pigs and a clutch of noisy chickens in the yard; monkeys passing through swinging their tails just above the heads of the frustrated dogs; snakes (two memorable encounters with a cobra and a Russells viper); frogs in the monsoon-flooded pond; a large monitor lizard making occasional appearances; bats, squirrels and civets; innumerable insects – from fire ants using the washing line to cross open ground, to giant moths, to itchy caterpillars hanging by threads from the trees. And birds!
The house was bordered by a stream, the Valle, iron-red but clear and full of crabs in the dry season, roaring with jetsam in the monsoon, and always carrying the plastic dumped further upstream by environmentally unconscious locals. On its far bank was rice paddy, irrigated from the stream and ringed by coconut palms, while along its course a path tracked towards a side road, passing through abandoned mango orchards, a black pepper plantation and several old growth forest trees festooned with creepers. This variety of ecological niches made for a bird watchers paradise and I quickly learned to become one, needing to do little more than sit on my porch with my video camera and wait for the action. Over the years, within a half-kilometer radius I was able to film around a hundred colourful species. Memorable moments included the male Paradise flycatcher with its long white tail dangling just above Naveena’s head as she stood beneath the cashew tree in our front yard; two bright yellow Black-hooded orioles brushing my hair as they flew straight through our porch; a Black-naped monarch whose nest I replaced when it fell out of a tree and whose restless chicks I had repeatedly to rescue from the ground over the following days; the Crimson sunbird who used to hang on our scooter’s wing mirror and peck at its reflection; the rare appearance of a pair of Great Pied hornbills – massive birds usually found in the jungles of the Western ghats fifty kilometers away – pecking the top off a rotten coconut trunk; and the female Koyal that greeted the birth of our daughter. Here’s the film Birds From My Goa Garden.
My first memory after our arrival was a thundery evening in late monsoon on one of Naveena’s first home visits to a client. We took off into the gloom on our scooter and headed north to Arambol. It’s not a long haul, three-quarters of an hour or so, but in those days –just a decade or so ago but before Goa took on today’s 24/7 vibe – the main road was almost deserted and it felt much longer. I dropped her off beside a rice field on the edge of the village and watched her splash off in the direction of the house she was to visit, shuddering to think of the snakes and malarial mosquitoes she might encounter. Then drove myself on to a hilltop to sit and wait under the new mobile towers, observing the thunderclouds build with growing alarm. An hour later her call to pick her up came and we headed back without a drop falling on us but exhausted and determined never to do such a thing again. We quickly bought ourselves a little black Maruti-Suzuki car for her to use in future.
The Birthing Center catered mainly to conscious travellers from all over the world, with the occasional freebie to a local. Several became friends. Plus with the arrival of the main tourist season in December came old Osho friends from Pune and Europe. It was the perfect opportunity to put a band of old connections together and in January 2008 what turned out to be a very shady Iranian booked us in to play a concert at the famous Hilltop in Vagator. Joining us was someone who would become one of my most important musical contacts, as well as my daughter Koyal’s godfather and a dear friend. Sandeep Srivastava and I were connected on MySpace, but so determined was he to meet me and join the band that he flew down from Delhi at his own expense.
I remember little of the concert itself, and rely on the film even to tell me who else was playing but the following days meeting to collect our share of the door certainly left an indelible impression. The rogue insisted that, despite the sizeable crowd, we were due just seven thousand rupees (around $130) once his expenses had been take off!
SMILES FROM OFF THE ROAD IN INDIA – The Himalayas
A glimpse of Nanda Devi from Almora that I had been granted on the way to Avani two years previously had made me determined to fulfill an old dream and get as close to her mountain flanks as possible. In May 2008 I left Naveena happy in her apprenticeship and took myself on a trek up towards the glaciers at the head of the Pindari river. In Khati, the first village encountered two days walk after leaving the road, I made the discovery that would lead to the Smiles series. I could turn the screen of my camera towards the subjects while filming, break the ice by fooling around myself and get pure hilarity in response! (Off the Road in India 2008/9)
Two days walking further on, camped on the meadows under the Kaphni glacier, I met Khim Singh from the village of Jhuni. A friendship, more wonderful Smiles footage and the solar project would result. Apart from a shepherd in a rough stone hut, flocks of sheep and the teenage boy I had hired to drive a mule carrying my packs, my lonely tent and I were the only intrusive elements in the boulder-strewn grasslands. I had had an hallucinogenic night attempting to get to sleep at 4000 meters, at one point stumbling out from my tent into the dark, convinced that hours had passed since daylight had faded and I’d got into my sleeping bag. Leaning back I glimpsed at an impossible angle above swirling cloud pink light still shining on a wedge of snow: the tip of Nanda Kot (6,200m).
Morning saw the mist clearing and the sharp reports of overnight ice melting from rock faces. From high up in the clouds looming over the valley slopes three tiny figures emerged to make a beeline towards me. I watched as they shouldered off a battered backpack, a bulging sack and a huge bundle of wood and set themselves down nearby. A blackened cooking pot was produced, a fire lit and they soon had rice and potatoes cooking. My poor Hindi soon proved inadequate, but fortunately the oldest, the other lads’ father, had learned English as a trekking guide. He showed me a wizened root of what he called ‘kira ghaz’ (I had to look it up back in Goa – Cordypsis sinensis – a fungal parasite on a caterpillar, found above 3500 meters throughout the Himalayan region and used in China by TCM). Khim told me that if they could harvest a handful it would be worth twenty thousand rupees, half his family’s yearly income. So he and most of the rest of the able villagers spent months in summer rooting around on the ground for the little shoots and sleeping in caves. ‘You don’t have a tent?’ I asked in disbelief. “No? Then I’m going to send you one!’
They packed up, crossed the river by an ice bridge and dwindled to invisibility up the vast slopes opposite. But something momentous had passed between Khim Singh and myself in that short meeting, and the tragedy that would strike his family two years later when the elder of the two boys I had just met died in a fall off the mountain on a kira gaz hunting expedition, would bond us even further. For now I had Khim’s address and next summer on visit to UK I bought him a tent. It seemed impossible that it would actually make it to him when I sent it from the Post Office in Goa, addressed as it was simply to his name, ‘Village Jhuni’ via Kapkot, Uttarakhand. But the postman must have lugged it up the five hours walk from the road head at Saung, for before long I had a reply. The next year we arranged by letter to meet at Saung for him to take me to meet his family.
SMILES FROM OFF THE ROAD IN INDIA – The South
The other elements in the Smiles films were provided by three trips to the jungles of the Western ghats in South India during 2008-9. At the time I wasn’t aware of the politico-religious forces of many strains that swirl murkily around India’s indigenous peoples (adivasis) and national parks. Thus two of these trips would see my nearly arrested, while all three, with my mixture of naivity and arrogance, might today see me accused of ‘human zoo’ tourism. I blundered along under the influence of Sunil Janah’s wonderful black and white photos of India’s tribes taken in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a Rousseau-esque vision of an unspoiled humanity. In fact I took away nothing but pictures of happy faces and gave as much fun as I got, but in retrospect was lucky to slip in and out unscathed.
My first trip was with Shiva, a Tamil friend from Pune, who had returned to live in his home region and knew not only many little-visited corners, but also how to use his skills as a local to cut corners. We drove up to Topslip in Tamil Nadu and spent the night in a lonely bungalow surrounded by dense jungle. Shiva arranged a tribal guide for a morning walk, who kept us at a safe distance when we encountered elephants and away in the nick of time from a viper nestled at chest height on a branch. Next, over the Kerala border into Parambikulam, where a roadside stop beside a lake allowed me to film women and girls laughing with (and at!) me while washing their hair and doing their laundry. After a night in Mudumalai National Park we made the blunder that could have seen us arrested (if not worse), taking a walk down a track in Karnataka’s Bandipur Tiger Reserve. It is strictly forbidden to get out of the car in such places, but cocksure we were, and sure we could get away with a short stretch of our legs. Chatting away we found ourselves going much further than planned until suddenly we were confronted by an incandescent Forest Department guard. Under a rain of blows from his stick, Shiva struggled to excuse us in Tamil and his limited Kannada, and as we were escorted roughly and shamefacedly back to our car, I learned that he had been mistaken for a paid guide deliberately breaking the law, and that the track we had been on was a known haunt of a rogue elephant!
On the second trip I was able to film what may turn out to be a last generation harvesting wild bamboo in the forest. With J, a Keralan contact translating, I learned from a group of wizened tribal women that the bamboo only flowers every twenty years or so. I watched them glean the tiny seeds from the ground and separate them from chaff and leaves, aware that generations to come would be unlikely to show any interest in such monotonous work.
The main focus of the trip was a nighttime tribal dance (see my film Adivasi tribal dance) in Waynad, (once a tribal stronghold in the forest, now much settled and turned to crops) which J took me to. Relentless drumming in six-eight time, a wailing shenai, gnarly bare feet twisting in the red mud, older women gyrating in stately pirouettes, the mens’ juddering torsos and sudden wild ululations. The whole sweaty scene lit by a single kerosene lamp held by J to enable me to snatch a bit of pixilated footage. For a couple of hours I was right out of my comfort zone, conscious that without J’s presence I wouldn’t have a clue what business I had being in such a place.
The third trip, with J promising me a better opportunity to film a dance, ended in a scary night at a rural police station. I flew down to Cochin to meet him with an Australian friend, Svargo and a guitar, with the vague idea of playing it at the dance. Once up in the hills, preparations for the event took an ominous turn as I learned that in order to get proceedings underway we needed to provide quantities of cheap whisky. At dusk a walk through rice fields brought us to a concrete school building, where in the gathering gloom I managed to film a group of school kids who took scant provocation to burst into laughter, song and dance. Afterwards I got out my guitar and out popped a melody (six-eight time and a pentatonic major are universal folk motifs) we could all sing together (film: Singing with the Paniyas). Svargo caught it all on film as the light faded and the kids laughter, toothy grins and captivating eyes are one of the highlights of my years in India.
As darkness fell the atmosphere grew more and more anarchic while we waited around in the company of various drunks careening in and out of the poorly-lit courtyard. Suddenly there were shouted commands, bright torchlights and a general panic. Next thing Svargo and I knew J was driving us off with a burly police officer in the front passenger seat and an escort jeep fore and aft.
At the police station, while J dealt with hostile officers in rapid fire Malayalam, my camera was taken off me and it’s DV cassette removed (J would not get the footage released for months). Svargo and I were without our passports, which we’d left down in Cochin for safety. Our inability to produce them brought a chilling ‘You will have to be punished then!’
Incomprehensible negotiations continued for hours but we got out eventually with J required to return to Wyanad with photocopies of our passports. We recuperated with a colourful afternoon in Nilambur, at a settlement set up in the forest by the Keralan government for a former hunter-gatherer tribe. J had connections there so it was all very relaxed, with the bright sunshine meaning that I finally got some proper light on smiling tribal faces.
The Smiles series of films were shown at the IUCN Conference in Barcelona in 2008 and at film festivals In India and Europe during 2009.
The second half of 2008 saw me enter a competition to make five short documentaries on Goa. Our local Italian snake catcher was the subject of one, and we had the timely appearance of a Russells viper (one of the most dangerous snakes in India due to the rapidity of its strike) coiled up outside our porch to thank for the dramatic footage to go with his interview.
The second ‘Temple of Mystery’ was filmed on visits to the (at that time still) little-visited twelfth-century stone Shiva temple on the edge of the jungle at Tambi Surla near the Karnataka border. I narrated a bit of a detective story in the voice of the temple itself, for being the only temple of its period to survive the destructive rampage of the Muslim and Portugese invaders in Goa and with its lonely position away from any town, it is indeed a place of some mystery and much atmosphere.
The third ‘The True Gods of India’ took me all over our home stretch of north Goa from Arambol down to Candolim, filming trees. Banyans and Peepals mostly, reverently wound with coloured thread and hung with bells; honoured by metal tridents and tiny oil lamps, buttered with ghee and saffron; prominent in temple courtyards, forgotten behind prickly pear and garbage on lonely back roads; standing sentinel at the junctions of streams. I figured they form the majority of the count of the proverbial 330 million gods of Hinduism.
The fourth ‘Boys and Girls Come Out to Play’ and fifth ‘Armed and Dangerous’ were filmed during Goa’s spring carnival ‘Shigmo’ in Mapusa town. Having seen over the years the restrictions on young men and women coming together in any way in traditional India, it suddenly struck me that here, dancing on the street, a repressive society had found an acceptable way for them to interact. ‘Armed and Dangerous’ is a response to the regiments on display in the carnival’s equivalent of floats: men in costumes made from all colours of the rainbow ride elaborate hobby horse costumes, accompanied by troops of banner waving, harlequin footsoldiers and peacock-proud drummers. The martial tradition has it seems, over the centuries, morphed into burlesque!
GREEN RAGAS BAND
In February 2009 I got the opportunity to use my nature footage and the early Smiles material as backdrop for my first multimedia concert with Sandeep and his local Delhi band at the Wildscreen Awards ceremony held at the British Council in New Delhi. In terms of spreading the environmental/sustainability message effectively, using video was a definite upgrade from our stills at the Concert for India’s Environment in Pune five years before. This connection to the British Council would lead to the formation of Sandeep and my Green Ragas Band, further concerts at the Council and at the 2010 Commonwealth Games; and access to wildlife footage (undersea for example) that I could never have got myself and which I was able to use in the Green Ragas film.
Sandeep provided the vital melodic and lyric content of much of the Green Ragas material, writing Hindi lyrics both celebrating and lamenting the state of our Earth to tunes based on ragas, plus coordinating a band to back it all up. Prabodh and Adarsha (from the Concert for India’s Environment days) and I provided a touch of the West, while Sangit Om brought in traditional elements from Crete with his lyra. Most of my time however, both in preparation and on stage, was spent lining up appropriate footage and collating an appropriate dose of awareness-raising information to project during each song. This brought me up to scratch on the issues facing biodiversity conservation and justice for the victims of our unsustainable greed for energy, raw materials and land from an Indian perspective. Over the rest of our Goa years, I would see these issues played out at close hand around our home as well as in the Himalayas.
Films and Music 2009
As the year progressed and Naveena began to bloom into her pregnancy I made my trip to Khim Singh’s village of Jhuni, accompanied by my trusty straw hat. The village put on a spontaneous welcoming party and with the hat being passed from head to head, some hilarious footage resulted. The result was the third part of the Smiles series. And on the path back down I was lucky to film a trio of Himalayan griffon vultures from very close as they tore a buffalo carcass to bits.
I collated some of my best shots, including smiling faces, tribal dancers, butterflies and birds from our garden and scenes from the glacier trip (most memorably a Himalayan Black bear attempting to cross the Kaphni river just a few meters in front of me) into the film to accompany ‘Land of the Buddhas’, a ‘best of’ CD released in 2009 on New Earth Records.
A gig in Morjim (Live in Goa 2009) in March was the first of three or four informal gatherings of sannyasin friends which I helped organize over the Goa years. With firelight, fire dancing, a basic sound system and excellent fellow musicians (Karunesh, Shantam, Ramadhan and Keval) it was a wild evening. Trying to repeat it at the same venue the following year however, illustrated the basis of Goa’s tolerance for us Westerners: despite the organizer swearing that she had paid off the relevant police department with the required backsheesh, something obviously went amiss, for we were interrupted shortly after beginning by burly officers confiscating the sound equipment and shutting us down. Our 2012 Jhuni Fundraising Concert at a new sannyasin venue in Arambol provides an example of another pitfall for any outsiders wishing to set up in business in Goa. It was such a success, as was the venue itself with its events and restaurant, that the following year the local landowner refused to renew the lease and took over the place himself. Needless to say it sank without trace.
During the hot season and the monsoon I got involved in two recording projects: producing an album for Tiffany, a mantra singer, in Goa and Pune; and then initiating what would turn out to be (2020) a still-unreleased project with Venu Gopal in Pune. Well-known in the Osho Commune as a meditation leader and a player of the haunting Indian bowed instrument the dilruba, Gopal had been the first musician I met and played with when I first arrived in Pune in 1988. His plan was to record Osho songs that had never made it on to tape or CD before. He’d done a huge amount of research in preparation and offered me the role of musical arranger and producer. We worked together on chord patterns and song structures for around a dozen songs, before taking our chosen singers into a recording studio on the edge of Pune. ‘With a Fire’ pays tribute to everyone involved in that first stage of the project.